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After Tehran’s Move: A Sigh of Relief in Europe

After Tehran’s Move: A Sigh of Relief in Europe

Thursday, 9 May, 2019 - 06:15
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani gestures during a news conference in Tehran, Iran, May 22, 2017. TIMA via REUTERS
Asharq Al-Awsat
The Islamic Republic’s announcement that it has suspended certain commitments under the so-called “nuke deal” has brought the issue back in the headlines. But what does Iran’s move actually mean and how likely it is to affect what looks like heightening tension with the United States?

The “suspension” announced by President Hassan Rouhani is for 60 days during which the European Union trio in the 5+1 deal are supposed to honor their unspecified promises to the Islamic Republic.

The 60-days span wasn’t chosen at random. It covers the period up to 8 August when the G-7 summit is scheduled to be held in France with “how to deal with Iran” one of the main topics. Right now the buzz from European capitals is that Britain, France and Germany appear to be tilting towards the American position on Iran seeking to broaden any future engagement to include Tehran’s missile programme, its involvement in regional conflicts and alleged support for terrorist organizations.

Thus, Tehran hopes that the least it can achieve is to persuade, if not threaten, the Europeans not to back the US full Monty.

That gives Tehran the opportunity the outcome of the forthcoming G-7 summit as it wishes. The slightest sign of European hesitation to subscribe to the Trump agenda could be interpreted as a victory for the Islamic Republic, thus justifying the decision not to ditch the “nuke deal”.

Tehran’s move is also aimed at what diplomats call “furnishing the vacuum” which means doing something to show that you still have the initiative even when you don’t. That is important in the context of Iran’s domestic politics. Rouhani’s rivals within the ruling clique are publicly calling for his dismissal on grounds of incompetence in handling the current crisis.

The move also gets “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei off the hook. He had solemnly promised to burn the “nuke deal” when and if the US withdrew from it. A year later, there has been no burning and no smoke. The “suspension” gambit could give the impression that Khamenei isn’t reneging on his pledge.

Both the US and the EU trio may well be happy with Tehran’s move as it keeps the core task of the Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action (CJPOA), that is to say freezing the Iranian nuclear project below the so-called “threshold” of weaponization, intact.

The three announced suspensions are meaningless in practical terms.

The first is to suspend efforts to get rid of Iran’s heavy water (plutonium) stocks. Former US President Barack Obama had promised to help market the stock and the US firm Westinghouse was in preliminary talks to buy. Trump's entry into the White House stopped that. The fact is that no one really wants heavy water stocks at any price, especially because building plutonium power-plants, has gone out of fashion.

The second suspension concerns Iran’s stocks of enriched uranium, estimated at around 2000 kilos to meet the 300-kilos limit set by CJPOA. Initially, Russia was supposed to buy most of the stock. However, Tehran sources say that Moscow did not buy more than a third and has since been reluctant to take any more. In fact, the global market for enriched uranium is at its lowest ebb. Britain, for example, has over 10,000 kilos, stocked in Cambria, and is unable to find a buyer. Thus, Tehran’s “suspension” is an acknowledgment of market reality.

The third “suspension” lifts the ban on Iran enriching uranium above the 3.67 grade permitted under CJPOA. However, that, too, is meaningless as Iran reaps no benefits from enriching uranium that it cannot use for any purpose, civilian or military. Making a warhead would need uranium enriched above 90 percent, something that would mean tearing up the CJPOA. Lower grade uranium needed for Iran’s only nuclear power station at Heliyeh is already assured by the Russian contractors for the next 38 years that is to say the life-span of the plant.

Because of “coordinate” differentials, Iranian enriched uranium is unusable at Heliyeh. As for the enriched uranium needed for the Amir-Abad civilian rector, it is routinely supplied through the International Atomic energy Agency (IAEA).

However, Tehran’s latest move helps the leadership there to save face and buy time to try and sort out its own differences on strategy. The “accommodationists”, currently led by Rouhani, hope and pray for some gesture by the Europeans, and more improbably by the Trump administration, to avoid total humiliation. Their strategy is to play diplomatic gesticulations until the next US presidential election, in the hope that a friendly Democrat President will revert to Obama’s policy of accommodation with the Islamic Republic.

With Tehran’s latest move, the Europeans will have a sigh of relief. Iran’s nuclear project remains frozen, giving the EU three time to decide how to dodge taking sides in the heightening tension between Tehran and Washington.

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